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#ThomasFire: 101 Opens and the Further Control of Nature in the Anthropocene

January 21, 2018

This stone plaque graces the entrance of the Engineering building at the University of Wyoming and inspired the title of John McPhee’s book “The Control of Nature.”

Just north of where I live practically in shouting distance of the Ventura Freeway and the burnt remnants of the Thomas Fire, the 101 through Montecito opened a few hours ago, allowing traffic to travel where the debris flowed just over  a week ago.

The opening of the 101 once again shows many how “the control of nature is won, not given.” Thousands of workers first had to search for survivors… and then for the deceased. It took a huge fleet of engineers and public service employees working around the clock for almost two weeks to wrest control back when the river of debris chose to flow along the freeway.

Hundreds of people have yet to return home as water, power, and roads are in various stages of recovery and repair. As our attention has been focused on these human dramas and tragedies, much of the infrastructure damage has not even been reported on. The scope of the debris flow is hard to comprehend.

Historic and geologic time converged when the biggest fire in California’s history gobbled up more then 281,000 acres in a month. Fueled by savage Santa Anas (read Joan Didion’s essay here) almost devoid of humidity, the fire raced across ridges sending fire bombs ahead which were indiscriminate on where they landed — a house here, an outbuilding there, a tree, a ranch, a national forest.

“In the long dry season, and particularly in the fall, air flows southwest toward Los Angeles from the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range,” writes John McPhee. “Extremely low in moisture, it comes out of the canyon lands and crosses the Mojave Desert. As it drops in altitude, it compresses, becoming even dryer and hotter. It advances in gusts. This is the wind that is sometimes called the foehn. The fire wind. The devil wind. In Los Angeles, it is known as Santa Ana.”

One third of the homes in a friend’s neighborhood are gone, some saved only because firefighters pumped the water out of their pools. Her house — and the houses of other friends in the region — were not saved. Over 100,000 people had to evacuate at one time or another during  the month the fire threatened our area.

In Montecito, a 200 year rainstorm hit the nude hills stripped by the Thomas Fire. The deluge hit soil made waterproof by two factors: the residue of roasted waxy chaparral plants heated so high that it is like a glaze on ceramic pot protecting the soil and seeds beneath but letting the water bead and rollaway: “Of all the assembling factors that eventually send debris flows rumbling down the canyons,” writes John McPhee, “none is more detonative than the waterproof soil.”

“The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins,” writes John McPhee in “Los Angeles against the Mountains-I” published in 1998 in The New Yorker Magazine.

The issue here of course is that for the rest of this winter this area where I live is at risk. While the mountain range above Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Ojai is not exactly the same as the San Gabriels which McPhee discusses in his essay, we have very similar conditions: like the San Gabriels, our mountains including Ojai’s Topa Topas are part of what’s known as the “Transverse Range” because they run east-west instead of north south. The only other range that runs east west in the US is the Uintas in Utah.

Steep, rugged, and with few passes means  cities like Santa Barbara and Ventura or Los Angeles and Bakersfield have limited routes connecting them, and when calamity strikes, communities are left stranded and cut off from each other and the rest of the state.

Too similar as we saw in Montecito.

The amount of debris that flowed down from the mountains above Montecito is just hard to fathom — but we must. I have a barranca with a concrete channel behind my house: could it fill? While this is the former course of a creek, in 20 years, it hasn’t. Only two sections are daylighted — at the hillside and behind my house then under San Jon road where it joins that underground channel to the ocean. The rest is underneath the roads which means, like in Montecito and elsewhere, the debris flow will follow the least path of resistance: the street.

One big difference for us in Ventura: our coastal hills are more gentle, rounded, full of sand and seashells befitting their previous existence undersea. It is the Topa Topas that we need to worry about most but as outlined below, the debris has flowed here in the past and may flow here again –especially if we receive an unusual amount of rain in a short period or over a period of several days. According to historical records, in 1861-1862, “Heavy rains altered the face of the county. The Ventura Avenue bluffs were completely reshaped with this storm and it washed away sixty buildings.”

from “The Ojai Valley: An Illustrated History, by Patricia Fry” — thanks to Ojai City council member Suza Francina for calling this to my attention

Our attempt to control nature, and our impact on the planet, including anthropogenic climate change, has lead a group of geologists to recommend we name our present epoch the anthropocene. 

When did the anthropocene start? Some argue it began with the Industrial Revolution, others say 1945, when we had the first atomic bomb test.

Plentiful evidence shows that humanity has contributed to an increase in the loss of biodiversity that has changed the distribution of various living organisms and impacted most ecosystems on the planet; our roads, agriculture, and other infrastructure has changed the shape of the planet, and our use of carbon based fuels has released so much into the atmosphere that we may be on the path to permanent climate change that will make it challenging for the large populations of humans and other species that live on the margins of the continents to thrive and survive.

The Thomas Fire and resulting flood is just one result of the anthropocene. But it is among many calls to action to address climate change and our impact on the planet.

“[T]here are so many of us here to pay the bill, to protect those who insist on living up there,” states Vito Vanoni, a founder of Caltech’s Environmental Quality Laboratory, in McPhee’s New Yorker article. “Our zoning is not strong enough to prevent this. The forces of development are hard to oppose.”

It is up to us. Strive on, we must.

… control of nature is won, not given…

But we must find the will to shape the world — with nature, not against it.

We are not at war with nature. We are part of nature.

We cannot continue to be at war with ourselves.

If we do, we will not continue. Nature will win. Over time, Nature always wins.

Hear UCSB Geology Professor Ed Keller talk about debris flows at UCSB’s Central Library’s Faulkner Gallery on January 25 at 6:30 p.m. For more about the geologic impact, read this blog post by Doc Searls :Making Sense of Montecito. Thanks to Doc for the reminder and the link to the essay by John McPhee which is in his excellent book, The Control of Nature which I have taught in the past and may be timely to do so again in the fall!

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